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Whenever nations appear, the process is by and large a standardised one. A people become conscious that they are a nation, they assert themselves and overthrow the broader geopolitical framework that had previously contained them, and they are thereafter fixed up forevermore as (in the words of Benedict Anderson) “a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time.” Yet Scotland has diverged ever more eccentrically from this pattern until the example that it affords is today totally unique. Nationalism was never meant to be a road to nowhere but Scotland’s struggle for independence has lately dropped off all pre-existing political roadmaps.  

Deep in the wilderness, the national struggle has now visited the rough country of transgender politics. It had previously stopped off at the coronavirus. People had thought that the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s communication skills had been so amazing during the pandemic that they might somehow prompt calls for a fresh referendum and a vote for independence. In retrospect, perhaps it is preferable that this didn’t happen. COVID-19 would have become in effect a founding father and images of the coronavirus would have had to adorn banknotes and postage stamps. A vast statue of the pestilence would have had to be probably erected on Calton Hill.

But now the virus has fallen out of favour as a revolutionary ally and popping up next is the misgendered aspirant to the correct public toilets. I am not sure how this will be got across on the banknotes. The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill is designed to make it greatly easier for Scottish people to change their legal sex and to do so at the age of sixteen. This week, however, the Westminster government vetoed the bill, on the given grounds that it would not be possible to isolate its influence to Scotland. This is the first time that the UK and Scottish sovereignties have been at loggerheads in this way.

Westminster was right to act, since there cannot be two contrary laws operating simultaneously in the same country. If the bill had received royal assent then somebody who had legally reset their gender to “female” in Scotland would have had different rights to an English transgender woman when trying to access female-only spaces. Interestingly, if Scottish nationalism has been always predicated on the fantasy that a bus driver in Glasgow is somehow qualitatively different to one in Manchester, then for the first time a qualitative difference between English and Scottish people would have been artificially created by the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. Believe me, this is philosophically extremely exciting.

What does this situation say about today’s Scottish nationalism? In truth, I think that the movement has become so dishevelled that it has entered a period of what is near to being nihilism. There is one stunt after another, with the Scottish government trying firstly to contravene the devolution settlement to legislate for a referendum and secondly, with the gender bill, to override majority law-making at Westminster. Perhaps this flashy illegality is testing the water for a future campaign of civil disobedience, but it feels more like an unfocused and even wistful attempt to stoke sentimental outrage against the UK. Of course, the SNP’s middle-class support base is going to respond to these appeals with sourness and indignation rather than with any genuine political disruption. 

Scottish nationalism only ever now decomposes. If Scottish nationalists are all off on a political adventure, they are only ever getting more lost. So much for them.

What interests me instead is the political challenge of brokering a compromise on gender reform. Traditionally, the middle of the road is a home for the politically unimaginative or timid. The transgender debates have grown so acrimonious, however, that a dashing, aloof, Byronic genius might be now required to conquer the centre.

I am always very alert to signs of ageing and so I am worrying over this article that I am writing about compromising rather as I would fuss over a single grey hair. I tend to view history as class struggle; for example, I think that the bourgeoisie should lose over Brexit and that the working class should win the fight for housing. It would be obviously naive to imagine that there was no class component to gender reform but there is also no especial urgency to this question. Indeed, the “culture war” over gender reform more often resembles a tropical holiday from bread-and-butter politics.

If the UK government has been paralysed for years over the need to build adequate housing, in being unable to contemplate the onerous costs and difficult sacrifices, then the issue of gender reform is waiting for any frustrated voter as a complete and self-contained alternative politics. Here, on either side of the debate, one-dimensional victims and easy pantomime villains are locked in a recreational battle that nobody can ever win. If democratic politics was suspended in the UK – following, say, a military takeover – then the issue of gender reform would be probably allowed to alone remain in continuation, as a harmless compensatory substitute.

I admire the political writer Brendan O’Neill enormously. It sounds imposing when he comments in the Spectator that “the SNP wants to institutionalise in law a borderline religious idea that many people simply do not accept – namely, that we all have something called a ‘gender identity’, a gendered soul, and sometimes this soul is in conflict with our biological casing… There are people in Scotland who reject this article of faith as surely as others reject the idea that bread becomes the body of Christ during Mass…” Even so, this has as much relevance to worldly politics as a bravura move in Dungeons and Dragons might have to the war in Ukraine. And I suspect that the ultimate difference here is not so much between the Enlightenment and irrationality as between people who want to be stranded forever in a futile “culture war” and those who don’t.

Both sides in the gender-reform dispute are actually putting forward arguments that are singularly weak. The most ferocious critics of the recent bill wage that sex attackers would have used the legislation to gain bureaucratically-approved access to female-only spaces. As if somebody who is otherwise a maniac would sit down to the months of form filling and they would then burst into the female showers proudly brandishing their (laminated) new gender certificate. This strikes me as being a strangely theoretical paranoia rather than an honest panic.

On the other hand, the bill’s most heartfelt supporters can sound equally silly. It is proposed that somebody might have such a frail sense of their own identity that it needs a load of public bathrooms and changing rooms to prop it up and grant it validation. As with the fantasy of the certificate-waving maniac, there appears to be several important layers of reality missing from this picture of the transgender woman who is on some kind of cosmic pilgrimage to identity fulfilment in a female toilet.

I work for a very large organisation. Here there are two sets of changing rooms, one for the gentlemen and one for the ladies. Yet a significant minority of people at my workplace (including myself) are homosexual, lesbian or bisexual. So how do we all cope with the identity inconsistency of getting changed alongside people of a different sexuality and how have we all survived the terrible danger? Well, the anticlimactic answer is that everybody simply ignores these problems. I have never once heard them even being raised. In this scenario you are being invited to observe some adults in a natural setting.

The solutions to much of the anguish over gender discrepancies are likely to be similarly discreet, local and consensual. Many public bodies are now replacing gender-exclusive spaces with gender-neutral ones, bringing Mohomet to the mountain, as it were. Some solutions will unavoidably hurt people’s feelings. For a female athlete who has been through male puberty to compete against one who has not is to deny fairness to such an extent as to make competitive sport meaningless. A woman who has experienced male puberty can no more fairly participate in athletics than somebody who is morbidly obese can bag Munros. This is just a feature of the landscape that no amount of reorganisation can camouflage. The prisons question is, by contrast, absurd, with the authorities proclaiming that they cannot maintain order in spaces under their absolute control.

It might seem that the debate over gender reform is always escalating insanely without ever peaking. At the same time, it feels entirely temporary and like something that is too spurious to outlive today’s academic and social-media fashions. Maybe it will one day burn out altogether but, in the meantime, habitual controversialists should try to seek out the most uncontroversial extreme.   

[Previously on Tychy: “‘Transphobia’ in The Female Eunuch and the Story of April Ashley.”]